south asian therapy

by Steven Jacob
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“Why do you need therapy? It’s not like you’re not depressed or anything,” my friend said casually after taking a sip of his coffee.

“I’m not good,” I responded. “I haven’t felt fine in a long time, and I need to see someone to make sense of it all.”

“You’re fine, bro,” he insisted. “Like, honestly, you’re just stressed and probably in need of a vacation.”

I looked at him for a moment. I was gathering my thoughts, wondering how to articulate the feelings that I had been suppressing for the past three years.

“I don’t feel fine at all. I haven’t slept well in months, and I feel anxious all the time. Sometimes, I don’t even want to leave the house, and I don’t feel at peace with myself.”

I felt a sense of relief to say those words out loud to someone finally.

Earlier that day, I had scheduled an initial consult with a therapist, Zarna Shah, who was referred to me by another friend. It wasn’t a decision I made easily. It had taken me some time to become comfortable with the idea that maybe I should see a professional. What kind of criticism would I have to endure? I worried. But despite my fears, I was desperate to get my life back on track. So, I made the call.

A week later, the day had arrived—my first session. I got to the office 45 minutes early. I was nervous. Heart racing, palms sweaty, I began filling out a brief questionnaire. I didn’t know what to expect, but I took a deep breath to keep myself calm. After about 40 minutes, my therapist called me in.

Week 1: What Brings You Here?

I walked into the office and was invited to sit on a plush fabric couch. The lighting was warm, and there was a subtle smell of incense. I felt my nerves starting to settle. I took off my coat and laid back on the couch.

“Before we begin, I want you to know that whatever you say in this room is confidential. I’m here to help you and whatever we discuss here is between us. So, what brings you in today?” Zarna asked.

“I haven’t felt like myself in quite a while, and I don’t know what’s wrong.”

We began to unpack my statement. I opened up about how I felt lost, anxious and depressed about the direction my life was heading. I felt encouraged when Zarna ensured me that receiving help was not a sign of weakness. She was empathetic, and I felt comfortable talking to her. It was a good start.

When my first session concluded, Zarna gave me a homework assignment: Bring in a list of my strengths and weaknesses next time.

Week 2: Strengths and Weaknesses

I spent the week adding and revising my list on my phone. Admittedly, it didn’t have that many strengths. My weaknesses, on the other hand, I identified quickly. With the first session in the past, I arrived to my second appointment more comfortable and prepared.

“You are your own harshest critic, and you’ll recognize your flaws first,” Zarna iterated plainly after we reviewed my list.

Growing up in a South Asian household, no achievement ever felt good enough. I spent a majority of my life in competition with my peers, so it was only natural that I would find points to nitpick about myself.

[READ RELATED: Why The South Asian Perception of Mental Illness Needs to Stop]

We spent the rest of the session doing an exercise called cognitive reframing. For every negative and irrational thought I had, I was challenged to find a more positive point of view. Though it would be an ongoing practice, I noticed quickly how it began to help me establish a new self-perception. In time, cognitive reframing allowed me to focus on bettering myself every day, and I began to recognize my own strength.

Weeks 3 & 4: Family Interactions, Parental Expectations

After discussing how my upbringing played a large role in skewing my self-perception and self-esteem, I felt I had laid a substantial foundation to begin the rebuilding process for myself in the last session.

Zarna asked me if my parents knew I was seeing a therapist, to which I quickly replied, “No.” She wanted to know more about how I interacted with my family members.

So began the journey down that rabbit hole.

I felt closed off from my parents because I felt they couldn’t relate to the issues I was trying to tackle, I explained. I had gone against their wishes by not pursuing medicine and going into the field of social work. I thought if I told my parents that I was seeking professional help, they’d only be more disappointed. We never talked about how I felt, but internalizing my emotions only seemed to cause a bigger wedge between my parents and me.

[READ RELATED: Stories of Stigma: Three Generations of Generalized Anxiety Disorder]

Zarna and I explored my lack of communication with my parents in depth. I knew they were proud and loved me, but I couldn’t help but project my insecurities onto them. I had come to realize that what my parents were seeking for me was stability and security. They saw medicine as a gateway for me to have the success they worked for decades to obtain. Above all else, my parents just wanted to make sure that I was taking care of myself. As worried as I was about their reactions, I knew I had to learn how to effectively communicate and help them understand that I was in control of my life’s trajectory.

After my fourth session ended, I went home that night and told my parents that I was seeing a therapist. Their reaction surprised me. Rather than dismissing me, they encouraged me to pursue wellness. From that point forward, my parents were very supportive of my decision, and it was a start to establish a deeper connection with them.

Week 5 & 6: Loneliness, Vulnerability, Inadequacy

Zarna and I spent the next two sessions exploring my anxieties of being vulnerable and learning how to embrace my shortcomings.

As a South Asian male, there’s often a fear of vulnerability, which stems from importance we place on “being masculine.” I admitted to Zarna that even though I knew my friends had my back, I rarely opened up to them. I never wanted to burden those around me. But this often left me feeling alone and isolated.

I learned in these sessions that I was often running from the feelings of discomfort, desperately trying to mask my vulnerabilities. I recognized in these sessions that part of being human is embracing our imperfections and learning to live unapologetically. The goal is to not run from your problems but to find the strength that ultimately creates solutions. And some issues just don’t have answers, but you learn to cope in the best way possible. How I react to my circumstances, I learned, is completely up to me.

I was slowly learning to embrace my truth and myself and showing my loved ones the real Steven.

[READ RELATED: With My Mental Illnesses, One Thing Led to Another]

Weeks 7 & 8: Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself

After six weeks of therapy, I began to see concrete improvement in my life. My relationships, my professional life, and my physical health were all on the uptick. But I still struggled with battling anxious thoughts and comparing myself to my peers.

“You are your own harshest critic,” Zarna would say again.

I remembered in my earlier sessions when all I could identify were my weaknesses, dwelling on them to the point of paralysis.

Despite our criticisms, the one thing we rarely give ourselves is credit. I recognized how much time I spent feeling defeated and dismissing the small victories in my life. My therapy sessions helped me to remember that patience is critical when in pursuit of significant milestones. What I was slowly accepting was that someone else’s success was not a detriment to my well-being. Is this what self-love really meant?

Weeks 9 & 10: Romantic Relationships

I had come out of a long-term relationship some time before I began therapy. But having made so much progress, I felt it might time to get back out there explore the possibility of love again. Zarna and I explored my dating anxieties and feelings of self-doubt in these sessions. From examining communication styles in relationships to understanding what I valued in a relationship, I felt my worries start to lessen.

Sometimes we impose our timelines onto the people we’re dating. I learned that that the important thing is to let a relationship flourish organically and to be patient, especially in the early stages of a relationship.

[READ RELATED: Stay True to Yourself—Discussing Mental Health While Looking for Love]

Weeks 11 & 12: Reflections

I arrived at my 11th session eager to tell Zarna how much more positive I had felt since that first appointment. She told me the strides I had made were my my own and that she had only been there to help facilitate my journey.

We discussed how important it was for me to maintain a self-care routine, especially in stressful times. Self-care takes on many forms. For me, it meant doing something I really enjoyed at least two or three times per week to destress.

It was only the beginning of my journey to wellness, but I was willing to do the work for better mental health. One of my biggest learnings in the past 12 weeks was that when I couldn’t control my circumstances, I could always control how I reacted to them. If I allowed my mind to internalize the negative emotions and situations that didn’t go as planned, I’d be miserable. I learned not only how to cope but how to make the best of adverse situations, as well.

[READ RELATED: A Spiritual Evening With Eckhart Tolle: 5 Quotes That’ll Leave You Woke]

Takeaway

I met up with my friend for coffee again some weeks after my first session. He was quick to point out that he not only sensed more self-confidence in me, but also that I seemed more at peace with myself. He was right. It felt great to know that my progress was obvious, particularly to a person who once saw me as “fine.”

It’s been more than a year and a half since I began seeing my therapist, and I can confidently say I’m a different person today. I’ve learned to be more compassionate and patient with myself, two things that I struggled with in the earlier parts of my life. I have more fulfillment in my life and enjoy more meaningful relationships with the people around me. But the epiphanies and insights didn’t come overnight. Therapy is a process, and with any lifestyle change, it’s all about what you put into it. I still have anxious thoughts every now and again. But therapy taught me practical strategies to cope with my stress and find true inner joy.

If you’re considering seeing a mental health professional, I highly encourage it. Whether you feel “fine” or you’re at the end of the rope, therapy is for everyone. Finding a counselor with whom you can establish a therapeutic relationship might require a little research, but you’ll thank yourself for it. Embrace the discomfort because the strides that you’ll make are worth it. You’ll wonder why you didn’t start this sooner.

For more information on mental health in the South Asian community, check out MannMukti —ending the mental health stigma, one story at a time.


stevenjacobSteven Jacob hopes to help others gain insight by starting a dialogue on the issues that affect millennials. His writing is inspired by his daily interactions, personal observations, faith, cultural upbringing, music and experience as a social worker in the field of mental health. Steven is an avid lover of hip-hop, philosophy and spicy foods. He stays active with regular hikes with his dogs. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @stevenvjacob.

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